scribes gain instant H'wood cachet Scribe sez: 'That letterhead, with the little Oscar on
it, usually wakes people up.' By BRADEN PHILLIPS, 12/11/00
JOLLY GOOD FELLOW:
"Erin Brockovich" scribe and Nicholl Fellow Susannah Grand
addresses recent honorees.
Erik Venema is an ex-cop in
Princeton, N.J. collecting a pension after 18 years of service. He
lives at home taking care of the kids and writing screenplays. He's
entered the Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting four
times, never making it to the finals.
It sounds like a recipe for discouragement, but when
it comes to the Nicholl Fellowships, finalists aren't the only ones
who benefit. Of the 4,250 scripts entered this year, Venema's made
it to the top 30, his best finish yet.
"If I send a query letter now, I'll send my most
recent Nicholl letter," he says. "That letterhead, with the little
Oscar on it, usually wakes people up."
As mention of the Oscar suggests, the Fellowships is
run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Surprisingly, perhaps, that bastion of mainstream Hollywood conducts
what is generally considered the most literary of screenwriting
contests. But perhaps more importantly, the Nicholl name is the
closest thing in Hollywood to "open sesame."
Venema may not have had his work optioned yet, but
the fact that he's placed in the top 30 is enough to get it read by
agents and producers.
"The Nicholl Fellowship was responsible for my entire
career," says Susannah Grant, whose winning script "Island Girl" was
never made but whose "Erin Brockavich" was, six years later. "There
are tons of scripts out there. But every year a really respected
institution gives its blessing to a little handful, and it means
your script will be read."
Unlike its counterparts, the Nicholl Fellowships
imposes no option on work, and ignores the experience and race of
the authors as well as the castability and commercial appeal of the
writing. "Our goal is not to look for commercial scripts or ignore
them, but to look for talented writers," says Greg Beal, the
Fellowships' program coordinator.
Apart from a $30 entry fee, the contest's only
criteria is one's unprofessional status. Anyone who has sold or
optioned a screenplay or teleplay for more than $5,000, received a
fellowship or prize that includes a "first look" clause, an option
or any other quid pro quo cannot apply. As determined by four-tiered
judging process, the winners are those who tell the best stories the
But while the Nicholl Fellowships strives for
literary purity, the commercial success of its winners is hardly
beside the point.
In his opening remarks at the recent gala dinner for
this year's Nicholl fellows, Academy president Robert Rehme
mentioned that Nicholl alumni wrote eight films released
theatrically this year -- the best year ever commercially.
They include Raymond De Felitta's "Two Family House,"
his Nicholl entry script from 1991; Susannah Grant's "Erin
Brockavich" and "28 Days;" Ehren Kruger's "Reindeer Games" and
"Scream 3;" Andrew W. Marlowe's "Hollow Man;" Randall McCormick, who
received co-story credit on "Titan A.E," and Mike Rich, whose
Nicholl entry script from 1998, "Finding Forrester," opens soon.
If you include Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides,"
based on the novel written by 1986 Nicholl Fellow Jeffrey Eugenides
("Here Comes Winston, Full of the Holy Spirit"), the total is
"But we're not really concerned with financial
results here," Rehme adds afterwards, as if chastened by his
Overall, 68 fellows have received the $25,000 award
since it was established in 1985 (the first seven years gave $20,000
stipends) with a gift by Gee Nichol in honor of her late husband
Those 68 have either written, co-written, received
story credit on or adapted the novel for 28 films. Just in case
anyone should ask, the Academy has even gone to the trouble of
calculating the total box office value of those projects: $1.87
billion. "And if 'Finding Forrester' does anything over Christmas,"
adds Beal, "it'll go over $2 billion."
Paradigm's Valerie Phillips, who represents Ehren
Kruger, puts the Nicholl Fellowships in a broader perspective.
"Nicholl and other contests don't play a big role in terms of my
signing new clients. But that said, I wouldn't dare not read those
scripts," she explains.
Nicholl relies on a judging process that the Academy
itself confesses is imperfect, but which has established a track
record of successful writers. The initial mountain of submissions is
read by a corps of readers (46 this past year) over five months, who
reduce that number to around 250.
These quarter finalists are read by one group of
volunteer Academy members, cutting the number to roughly 110
semifinalists. Another group distills those scripts down to 10
finalists. Those, in turn, are read by the Nicholl Fellowship
Committee, the 12 or so keen-eyed men and women who must separate
one layer of cream from another to arrive at the five winners.
There is always the chance, says Beal, that a very
good script will never make it to the quarter finals because of one
reader's errant judgment.
"Over the years, I've been told that it's great to
read for a competition because they get to look for good writers and
not pay attention to commercial appeal," says Beal. "But I've also
heard that it's difficult not to look for the commercial, that
people can't divorce their reading from their training in the
"In the end," he adds, "the winners end up winners
because of a mix of people who look at a script in a subjective way.